Two disturbing stories about child abuse in Malawi recently passed through the local media, largely unnoticed: ‘12 defiled in seven months in Ntchisi’, read the Daily Times headline. The Nation headline said: ‘78 000 child labours in Malawi tobacco sector.’ These are stories that rarely if at all provoke any outrage from the general public. While there are a number of local NGOs doing commendable work protecting rights and welfare of children, such as Eye of a Child, the majority of NGOs, civil society and church organisations that would be up in arms protecting the “Malawi brand” if these child abuse cases were about homosexuality, for instance, are silent.
It took a visiting United Nations special rapporteur on Right to Food, Olivier de Schutter to raise the alarm on the extent of child-labour in the tobacco sector. It is not an overstatement acknowledge that this most likely made it into the news because de Schutter was deemed newsworthy, and not necessary the story itself. If anything, the headline itself suggest that the figure (78 000) needed highlighting to draw people’s attention on a story that would have most like passed with very little notice. The story was covered anyway it is necessary even if it takes VIPs to make such calls in order to amplify the message.
I know there are various reasons why kids end up in such despicable environment, as with society everyone has their own story to tell. There are situations when families have absolutely no choice but doing what they have to do to ensure their continued existence on this place we call earth. Whether they end up on tobacco estate children come along. Yet recognising this does not make their plight acceptable; neither does it make our silence and the lack of national discourse on these pertinent issues acceptable. Is chitsamunda any acceptable when practised by locals as opposed to foreigners or colonialists? Imagine the outrage if these kids were labouring on dominantly white or foreign-owned estates? “Black on black” crime exists and our silence does not absolve us, it only makes us complicit.
Children are a vulnerable group if not the most vulnerable members of our society. They need all the attention, help and care they can get. Yes, that Afrikan spirit, that Afrikan saying: it takes a village to raise a child. The Daily Times ran an editorial on the aforementioned story (26th July 2013). The newspaper urged for a treatment of children, arguing: “children are no lesser human,” the abuse must be stopped, it emphasised.
Of course reporters and their organisations can only do so much and whatever points raised here recognise and appreciate this fact. Indeed it is important to note that most reported news stories in Malawi are dead and forgotten by the time the next newspaper edition hit the streets – forget running stories like Bingu wa Mutharika’s wealth story; it has life span, too. It will go before you know it, without any policy change. There is a huge and unhealthy gulf between what is reported in the media and policy making in Malawi.
Philip Sande, a police Sergeant and a community policing coordinator in Ntchisi assured The Daily Times that the police “would continue carrying out sensitisation meetings in communities” on these horrific and serious cases of child molestation. That is all. Sensitisation meetings hoping that child molesters will turn up and change their behaviour?
Now imagine the outrage if those reported 12 defilement cases were about homosexual? Malawi, we need to get real and serious about our outlook on life. We need to be more rational in our judgement; dealing with things as they are not how we want them to be. Why do consented, harmless adults having sexual relationship with members of the same sex arouse so much anger, hatred and outrage but it is all muted when it comes to child molestation? We need to search within ourselves and answer these questions, honestly.
I made this point on my Facebook wall on Friday 26th July and one of my friends there, Taweni Gondwe Xaba made the following point:
“That is one thing about MW that drives me nuts!!! We are OBSESSED with homosexuality, which is consensual but unmoved by child molestation!!! These poor NGO’s trying to fight for children’s protection and rights get no support at all from the public and little interest from Govt. Koma nditati ndiyambitse association yolimbana ndi ma gay muone anthu akhonza kugulitsa ngombe zawo zomwe just to donate to my work! Futseki! Really winds me up.”
In the report The Times quoted Ntchisi police publicist, Gladson M’bumpha saying: “it was observed that a lot of factors trigger cases of defilement. Key among them are traditional beliefs that if a man defiles a young girl he will make good sales in tobacco.”
Here we have it: child molestation is part ‘traditional beliefs’. So much for a “God-fearing” nation that does not tolerate “immoral” and “unnatural acts” because they are contrary to “our culture” and through “religious teachings” God says no. What is these culture and religious beliefs that sits comfortably with child molestation at every level of society?
Malawi, before judging others, and those among us of course, we must first take stock of ourselves and appreciate the hypocrisy within us. There is a big problem here, and you cannot solve any problem unless you first acknowledge that it exists.
NOTE: Jimmy Kainja will be writing a weekly column on Nyasa Times, please make sure you check it every Wednesday.